Some tenants at the Buckingham Apartments in Arlington are draping their windows with red-and-white cloth strips this week -- symbols of their determination to stay in the complex, which is slated for conversion to a cooperative.

"You don't hang curtains in a place if you're going to move," said Susan Shanley, president of the Buckingham Tenants' Association. "And when we have achieved our objectives, we will hang up blue strips. So the red, white and blue will symbolize the American Dream."

The dream, in this case, ishomeownership and the "curtains" represent the newest form of tenant protest at Buckingham.

The 1,352-unit garden apartment complex was purchased last spring by a Chicago development firm, Stein & Co., and since then the tenants' association has been negotiating to buy 980 units from Stein. Those units, under association plans, would be operated as a tenant-run cooperative.

The curtains went up after a protest march last Sunday by nearly 100 tenants at the complex at Glebe Road and Pershing Drive, a protest that Shanley says will continue on succeeding Sundays.

Under Phase I of the Stein plan for the complex, 372 units would be converted to a cooperative, with current tenants receiving what the company and even some tenants consider very good discounts. In one case, said Susan Ives, a spokeswoman for the firm, an elderly tenant was eligible for discounts that dropped the price of her one-bedroom unit from $44,900 to $28,250.

Despite the discount, Shanley contends that few residents can afford the asking price. For instance, Shanley said, a survey by the tenants' association showed that the median income of Buckingham residents is $15,000. Under the rule of thumb that a buyer must earn 2 1/2 times the asking price of a unit to afford the cost, Shanley contends that few Buckingham residents could afford even the discounted units.

In an effort to preserve as many of the remaining 980 units as possible for low- and moderate-income residents, the tenants' association has been negotiating with Richard Stein, president of the firm, to buy the units for a tenant-run cooperative. To assist them in this effort, the Arlington County Board has given the tenants a $25,000 grant -- matched by Stein -- to hire consultants to study the feasibility of such a project.

Stein has said that he would sell the tenants as many of the 980 unrehabilitated units as they wanted to buy at cost, plus expenses he has incurred in the project, such as interest on loans for Phase I and the establishment of sales and relocation offices. The units cost him an average of $36,000 each, Stein has said, and the asking price would range from $46,000 to $5l,000 per unit.

The Stein firm's Ives points out that such a range is "affordable housing" in a market where many such units are selling for double that price, and stresses the firm's desire to assist the elderly, handicapped and long-term tenants in purchasing their units.

But Shanley, of the tenants' association, says: "They are unprecedented discounts, but they are discounts 95 percent of the tenants cannot afford. There's no way we can carry the preservation of low-cost units off at those prices."

Fran Lunney, executive director of the county Tenant-Landlord Commission and a member of a county-appointed task force studying the Buckingham problem, generally agrees that at the current asking prices few tenants would be able to remain at the complex.

"If all of Buckingham is converted to a cooperative at the prices Mr. Stein has indicated, I would expect 80 percent of the tenants will have to go," said Lunney. "I suspect they're going to have a difficult time relocating within the county."

Shanley said the prospects of federal aid to buy the complex are bleak and insists that Stein should accept responsibility for providing low- and moderate-income housing in return for "the privilege of being able to make a reasonable profit."

Ives counters that it is not the responsibility of private developers to provide subsidized housing, and reiterates that the firm will work with any group willing to assist the association in a purchase.

"If Buckingham does go down, it's not going to go down quietly," said Shanley. "If we can bring attention to it, maybe we can bring a solution to it."